Shortly after Austin voters elected to reinstate a citywide public homeless camping ban, a small campsite cropped up on city hall property. The homeless squatters are protesting the result of that election and its impending policy change. City hall grounds were one of several locations on which the camping prohibition remained in place even after the July 2019 change.
But the campsite has been considered a protest by city officials, and thus protected against removal.
With a gradually expanding number of tents on the grounds since the beginning of May, the campers formed an armed security detail. Campers harassed passersby going into city hall and especially focused on councilwoman Mackenzie Kelly — the lone Republican on the body.
The city council announced a phased enforcement plan, the second stage of which began last week with written warnings and initial citations being issued for repeat offenders. During the previous 30 days, only community engagement was conducted — aiming to inform campers of the new policy and point them toward places to which they could move. But the council broke for six weeks without finalizing those sites.
Removal of camps begins during the third phase of enforcement.
But on Monday, a number of Austin police officers circled a section of the camp to clear it for an impending construction project. Once news of that spread, many took it to mean that the entire camp was being removed.
“Austin Police and other City departments are working together to clear an area outside City Hall, on the corner of Guadalupe and Cesar Chavez, which has been designated for construction,” the city communications office said in a statement Monday morning.
The statement indicated that the campers had been informed in advance about the construction project and their requirement to move. Additionally, campers residing on the north side of the city hall block had been squatting on private property and were also required to move.
“Both groups of people were visited by HOST and APD District Representatives over the last 30 days, and have been informed about the upcoming construction project, as well as the criminal trespass issue.”
The city further stated, “Those who refuse to comply with the direction may be given a citation for violating the camping ordinance, or be placed under arrest if they fail to comply.”
A few homeless campers were arrested during the process for refusing to comply with the directive.
Tents still remain on much of city hall grounds.
The progressive city council has been reluctant to reimplement strict camping enforcement. The referendum forced their hands on the policy but Austin officials continue to drag their feet on the follow-through.
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Brad Johnson is an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.